On Thursday, September 28, the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) took the next step in a planning process that could eventually put grizzly bears back into the North Cascade Mountain range of northern Washington State. Now the feds are soliciting comments from the public about the proposed plan, which aims to establish a stable population of 200 individual bears in the Evergreen State within 60 to 100 years.
The “North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan” includes three different alternatives. There is a “no-action alternative,” which would maintain the status quo without releasing any bears into the North Cascades; then there are two “action alternatives” that the federal agencies called alternatives B and C in a recent statement announcing the plan. “Under both action alternatives, it is anticipated that 3 to 7 grizzly bears would be released into the NCE (North Cascades Ecosystem) over roughly 5 to 10 years with a goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears before switching to adaptive management,” the plan states.
The Plan Could Allow for Lethal Management of Problem Bears
Under both of these alternatives, Washington’s newly-released grizzly bears would be protected by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Alternative C, however—which the feds called “the preferred alternative”—grants federal, state, and tribal wildlife agencies greater “management flexibility” when conflicts between humans and grizzlies arise. That means a transplanted grizzly bear caught killing livestock, injuring or killing people, or exhibiting other types of nuisance behaviors could be euthanized—despite overarching safeguards otherwise provided by the ESA.
In order to provide an exemption that allows for potentially lethal management means, the feds would have to designate Washington’s transplanted grizzlies and their offspring as a “nonessential experimental population.” And planners would use the so-called 10(j) rule of the ESA to make that designation. Though shrouded in bureaucratic legalese, it’s a process that should be familiar to anyone who’s kept up with the ongoing saga of wolf reintroduction that is currently underway in Colorado.
“This would give authorities, ranchers, and landowners more options for managing bears to reduce or avoid conflicts while focusing on recovery,” said acting regional director for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Hugh Morrison, in a prepared statement posted to the NPS website. “The 10(j) experimental population designation would benefit the people and property in local communities, as well as the grizzly bears.”
Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Lower 48
In its September 28 press release, NPS said that the last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades Ecosystem was in 1996. Though the charismatic apex predators are notably scarce if not absent from the rugged North Cascade Mountains, they’re not unheard of in Washington State. Just last week, a young grizzly was captured near the town of Colville in Stevens County, about 70 miles north of Spokane. In a recent Facebook post, the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office said the bear was turned over to USFWS agents who “collared and relocated [it] to a wilderness area where grizzly bears are already located.”
According to NPS, there are six “grizzly bear recovery zones” in the Lower 48 dispersed throughout portions of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington: the Bitterroot Ecosystem of Idaho and Montana; the Cabinet-Yak Ecosystem of northwest Montana and the northern Idaho panhandle; the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming; the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem of northwest Montana; the Selkirk Ecosystem of northeastern Washington and northern Idaho; and the North Cascade Ecosystem of northwest and north central Washington.
In its draft environmental impact statement, NPS said grizzly bear release sites in the North Cascades would be selected based on the quality and availability of food sources in a given area and that released bears would be subadults that haven’t reproduced and have no history of human conflict. The agency would likely bring bears in from existing populations in Wyoming, Montana, and British Columbia, Canada.
Hunting rights and conservation advocacy groups like HOWL.org, The American Bear Foundation, and Sportsman’s Alliance have all voiced opposition to the federal government’s plan to release grizzlies into the North Cascades. In a position statement on its website, which funnels users directly to NPS’s public comment portal, HOWL says that Washington State—with its recent history of anti-hunting sentiment within its Fish and Game Commission—is a particularly bad place to reintroduce large carnivores like grizzlies.
“I have no problem with grizzly bears being where they should be,” HOWL Founder and President Charles Whitwam tells Field & Stream. “What I do have a problem with is bringing them into a state with a proven inability to manage bears alongside other big game species—and Washington is certainly one of those states. It looks like they’re going to try to reduce cougar seasons. They’ve already eliminated Spring bear season and there’s been talk of reducing all black bear hunting. Bringing in additional grizzly bears, more than are already living inside established populations in Washington, just doesn’t seem like a good call.”
Joe Kondelis of the American Bear Foundation echoed and added to Whitwam’s sentiments in a recent call with F&S. “My biggest concern with this whole thing is that the Washington Fish & Game Commission is a dumpster fire right now,” Kondellis says. “I don’t have any faith in that commission to do anything that’s beneficial to sportsmen. If those commission members get a feeling that there are a bunch of grizzly bears moving into the North Cascades—what kind of restrictions could they impose? Does that end black bear hunting altogether in that area just because they have that power?”
The NPS comment period for the proposed grizzly bear reintroduction plan began on September 28, and it will close on November 13, 2023. If you’d like to weigh in, you can so do here.